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Originally published Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 7:10 PM

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Book review

'Chuck Close: Life': The Northwest native painter who brought the portrait back to modern art

A review of "Chuck Close: Life," by Christopher Finch, a comprehensive chronicle of the life of the Everett and Tacoma-raised painter, who surmounted dyslexia and disability to become one of the 20th century's great artists.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Chuck Close: Life'

by Christopher Finch

Prestel Publishing, 368 pp., $34.95

Painter Chuck Close's early works are still his most well-known: startling close-ups of human faces on immense nine-foot canvases. Created in the 1960s and '70s, the black and white paintings — many of them self-portraits — are harsh and discomfiting, and helped establish Close as one of the preeminent artists of his generation.

In "Chuck Close: Life," longtime friend of the artist and former museum curator Christopher Finch has written a comprehensive biography that blends an exquisite rendering of Close's unique genius with details of his personal life.

Local readers will take interest in the painter's childhood in Everett and Tacoma in the 1940s and '50s. In his youth, Close struggled with dyslexia and other learning and neuromuscular disorders, but he was an ever-confident child, and showed an early creative bent. Close attended Everett Junior College, then the University of Washington, studying under painter Alden Mason.

The art world was still in the thrall of Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists, and Close became a devotee of Willem de Kooning, in part because his paintings used discernible images. After graduate school at Yale, Close moved to New York, where he met his future wife, Leslie, and took part in the transformation of the SoHo neighborhood into the epicenter of the New York art scene.

Close's fascination with faces was partly in perverse reaction to a contemporary critic who asserted that an artist could not paint portraits and consider himself modern. Working from photographs of his subjects, he divided the canvas into small grids and painstakingly filled them in to create the enormous images.

By the 1980s, Close hit the big time and never looked back. Time magazine and other national publications fawned over his shows. His work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and other top venues. He became a celebrity, partying with Andy Warhol in New York and the Clintons at the White House.

Close stayed with the large portrait format, but constantly innovated, creating pictures from pixilated dots, then pulp paper, finger painting and fragments of Polaroid close-ups.

In 1988, Close suffered a massive spinal stroke, leaving him a partial quadriplegic. His recovery and return to active painting were truly remarkable. One adjustment: he learned to paint from a wheelchair and devised a mechanical system to lower and raise his canvases into a slot in his studio floor.

Finch's prose is keen and crisp, and while his biographical sketches are astute, it is his writing on art that distinguishes this book. Like a good curator, he excels at interpreting art for the lay reader, as in this description of a painting: "Seen from close up, Chuck's prismatic grid paintings come as near to being visual music as anything one can imagine, each dab and swirl of paint a note in vast sea of orchestral texture."

Perhaps most arresting, and even thrilling, are passages about the genesis of Close's artistic style and method (a meticulous piecemeal process that evolved from how he overcame learning disabilities as a child).

One more thing: This book will make you want to visit an art museum at the soonest opportunity. Looking at the book's numerous illustrations, especially page-sized reproductions of paintings more than 10 times their size, convinced me that no derivative medium — not even the iPad — can replicate the experience of seeing art in person.

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